Review: State of Decay

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Once the zombie craze had fully engulfed the world of video games, it felt like a matter of time before someone took on the challenge of an open-world survival sim. It’s the ultimate expression of the zombie mystique, you against the necrotic forces of nature, struggling to survive by your wits and senses. And yet, despite the rise of Grand Theft Auto on one end and Left 4 Dead on the other, the industry simply could not deliver the quintessential zombie survival experience. Dead Rising was as close as they got until State of Decay rose from the wasteland, shambling about in a half-eaten shell of what everyone was hoping they’d get.

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You enter this grim world as Marcus, a regular joe just returning to civilization from a camping trip with his pal Ed. The folks milling around the shore they return to take a pointed interest in their flesh, and from there it’s a journey of survival and discovery in a rustic land teeming with the walking dead. Small enclaves of survivors dot the landscape, offering chances to band together, resupply, and push back the zombie hordes. Not everyone wants to cooperate though, and the scattered story missions explore the new power dynamic that has emerged after society got its collective brains eaten.

Functionally, you’re going to find a lot of common ground between State of Decay and Grand Theft Auto. The third person running, climbing, and driving is immediately familiar, as is the clunky melee combat and sticky shooting. You’ll need to resort to bloodying things up often but stealth is an option, with a helpful detection radius painted on your minimap at any given time. Those with plenty of patience can approach the game from a quiet, hands-off approach but for the rest of us, mowing down zombies with pickups and roasting them with molotovs is perfectly acceptable.

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There’s a lot of ground to cover in the sprawling valley, with multiple towns and plenty of outlying settlements. Almost every building can be entered and explored for items and resources needed for survival, though not without risk of being surprised by lurking zeds or tipping off the wandering hordes. High vantage points can be used to survey the immediate area and mark points of interest on your map, so if you locate a gun store or a really nice car you can find it again after wandering off. The map itself is extremely detailed and useful for navigating, a plus since the game world itself is a little light on points of interest to guide you.

I mentioned resources earlier, and these will be a large concern of yours for most of the game. Early on you’ll join up with a group of survivors and become responsible for keeping their haven running. That means scavenging for five specific resources such as food and fuel to maintain their stocks as they burn through them each day. These resources are also used to build new parts of camp and upgrade structures to provide new passive and active bonuses to everyone. You’ll be wanting to do this because you control not just one character but a team of them whom you can swap between when one gets hurt or tired. Bonuses can help you build up important stats or recover statuses quicker so you don’t have to do quite so much shuffling about.

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Honestly I’m the kind of person who can be happily occupied collecting resources forever, but State of Decay found a way to sour me on it. Your supply stocks aren’t actually consumed very quickly and can last several lengthy days from full. In addition, they have surprisingly low limits so scavenging more than a few crates of each resource at a time is rather pointless. This takes a bit of the draw out of exploring, especially once you’re set with solid weapons, and then managing the rotation of tired survivors just becomes tedious as you whittle away at the story missions all over the map. And here too, there’s not much compelling story to stick with, just little vignettes of life with zombies to justify clearing out another infestation or rummaging for more supplies you probably don’t need.

Once I lost that hook to the core gameplay, other annoyances started to gnaw at my enjoyment. As with most game that feature durability, any weapon that’s not extremely strong will break in minutes and your cars can survive very little punishment. Combat as I mentioned is clunky and awkward, full of canned animations and stiff attacks. You’ll encounter plenty of little glitches as well, with zombies clipping through walls, vibrating across flat ground, and getting stuck in open doors. And what does work right isn’t always clearly explained, such as the outpost system and expanding your territory, perhaps because the tutorial extends hours into the game and holds important features back until it feels like dispensing them.

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I know I sound pretty hard on the game right now, and that’s because I really started to enjoy State of Decay before the bottom fell out of it. Venturing out at night, casing and clearing houses for supplies, finding survivors in the wilderness to help, all of that appealed immediately despite my zombie fatigue. But none of the foundations go deep enough to make the game really compelling, and once that coat of paint comes off you begin to see how rough and unstable everything is beneath it. I think I’m ready for a good open-world zombie game, and State of Decay is almost there, but something tells me I could be doing better.

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